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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Encountering My Own Portrait

In studying the lives and works of various artists, I'm always on the lookout for some interesting little quirk or peculiar incident or personality trait to use as a point of departure from which to launch into the depth of character that makes that artist unique. At times, I devour art books voraciously. I've been known to  go through three or four a month. I have some favorites--Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Manet--not necessarily because of their artwork, but because of who they were as artists and as individuals. Another all time favorite is Pablo, Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisma Trinidad Ruiz Picasso. (I just had to do that.) Imagine my surprise, in thumbing through a book on...HIM...when I came face to face with a drawing by Picasso of ME! It was uncanny. The likeness was incredible--the beard, the eyes, the expression, the bald head, the body proportions, even the hands.

The date at the bottom of the page told me it was drawn in pencil about 1915 and could be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The style was surprisingly realistic for that period in Picasso's work. The strangest thing is, I don't at all recall sitting for the portrait. No, I'm not really that old. The figure is the Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, a longtime friend of Picasso, who was largely responsible for promoting his work during the prewar period. More than any other single individual, this man "made" Picasso the artist. In May of 1901, Picasso set up housekeeping in Paris. In June of that same year, he had his first one-man show in Vollard's Gallery. There is no record I could find of how many works by Picasso were exhibited, nor the prices they brought, but he sold fifteen.  He was just 20 years old.

This was not the first time Picasso had done a portrait of Vollard. Five years earlier, in 1910, during the period when he was just starting to explore Synthetic Cubism, he did a much more probing visual investigation of the man. Unlike the 1915 pencil drawing, which is a full-length image of a conservative businessman in a three-piece suit, the earlier, painted portrait is awash with Picasso's angular elements through which he attempts to expose the figural planes and linear structure of his subject. It is a full-faced, dark, brooding, half-length portrait full of interesting shaded gradations. The likeness is there. IT, too, looks like me, though not so obviously. Vollard had the same feeling. He often said his friends couldn't recognize him in the portrait; though it's also recounted that his four-year-old grandson had no trouble in doing so. I'm no great believer in reincarnation, but it would seem ironically appropriate that a wealthy, successful art dealer should be reincarnated as an unknown, late-twentieth century painter so that he might know life from the "other side" of the easel.

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